The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Australia has surged again, hitting 133 on Wednesday.
The ever-growing tally came as the Morrison government approved a $2.4 billion response to the COVID-19 outbreak and closed Australia’s borders to travellers from Italy.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy again urged calm, saying the country’s “magnificent, magnificent” doctors were doing all they could.
“We’ve got small numbers of cases at the moment. We do expect more and I’ve also said on many occasions, for most people who get this virus, it is a very minor illness,” he said.
“Certainly we are worried about the elderly, certainly we are worried if we have a large outbreak that that would put pressure on our hospitals … but at the moment, there is no reason for community panic in Australia.”
NSW remains the worst-hit state, with six more cases confirmed on Wednesday morning and a further four in the afternoon. That brings to 65 the number of coronavirus infections in the state – including two elderly patients who have died.
Also on Wednesday, three more Victorians were confirmed with the deadly virus, along with another three in Western Australia and one case at Southern Cross University campuses in northern NSW and on the Gold Coast.
The campuses at Lismore and Coolangatta are in lockdown to stop any potential spread of the virus after a staff member tested positive.
The decision means an estimated 8000 students will have to study at home. They are not required to self-isolate.
A university employee from the Philippines attended workshops at both campuses between March 2-6 before falling ill.
Health authorities are expected to set up 100 “pop-up” coronavirus clinics across Australia, as part of the government’s $2.4 billion package. The clinics are expected to handle up to 75 patients a day.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country’s health system would be stressed as the outbreak got worse, but said there was no reason for alarm or concern.
“These are not usual times and usual demands on our health system,” he said.
“[But] the plan and the resource and the preparedness and the professionalism of our health system will attend to those needs.”
He said Australia would close its borders to travellers from Italy at 6pm on Wednesday (ADST), extending restrictions already in place for travellers from China, Iran, and South Korea.
The restrictions will remain until health authorities determine it is safe to lift them.
Australian citizens or permanent residents returning from those countries will be allowed into the country but will have to self-isolate for 14 days.
The Prime Minister also said he was closely examining options for using the welfare system to deliver targeted cash payments. More details of the government’s planned stimulus package will be announced on Thursday, but it is likely to include handouts for pensioners and significant funding for aged-care facilities caring for seniors, who are most at risk from the coronavirus.
“We’re still finalising some of those measures,” Mr Morrison said.
In other developments on Wednesday, the country’s big four banks were said to be on the verge of offering “mortgage holidays” to customers affected by the virus epidemic.
Two British banks have recently made such offers, and RateCity research director Sally Tindall told the Nine Network similar deals were likely to be considered in Australia.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has demanded the government legislate for two weeks of paid leave for all workers to deal with the virus.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus also hit out at Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter for suggesting casual workers would have made provisions for staying home while sick or quarantined.
“It’s absolutely outrageous and so out of touch that our government would say that casual workers should have been putting money aside for a pandemic,” Ms McManus said.
“No one in the world or in Australia could prepare or know that a pandemic was coming.”
Mr Morrison urged bosses to look after their workers, saying they would need staff on the other side of any economic slump that stemmed from the virus fallout.
“I’d be encouraging employers to take a flexible and forward-leaning approach in supporting their employees during this process,” Mr Morrison said.
“Businesses spend a lot of time talking about the value and integrity of their brands. Their brands will be defined in these months ahead.”
In Victoria, Treasurer Tim Pallas has warned his next budget will be “extremely difficult” in the aftermath of the bushfires and amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has declared the virus a “class-two” emergency and opened the state’s emergency control centre to manage the crisis.
The revelations come as AFL players are bracing for the prospect of playing matches in front of empty stadiums because of the outbreak, which has already claimed the scalp of Tasmania’s Dark Mofo winter arts festival.
Elsewhere, queues stretched the lengths of city blocks as more than 1000 Victorians went to clinics in hospitals across Melbourne to be tested for the virus.
The South Australian government has also announced a $350 million economic stimulus package to help secure jobs affected by the triple whammy of bushfires, drought and the coronavirus.
Infrastructure projects, including road and hospital maintenance work and funds for tourism facilities will form the centrepiece of the initiative.